Worshipers take unorthodox turn to Orthodoxy

SOURCE: Frederick News-Post (Frederick, Maryland)

By David Frey

Father James Hamrick sprinkles holy water as he walks amid the pews at St. John the Baptist Orthodox Church. David Frey photo.
Father James Hamrick sprinkles holy water as he walks amid the pews at St. John the Baptist Orthodox Church. David Frey photo.

LEWISTOWN — In an old red brick church down a winding road, Gregorian chants and incense rise up to the bell tower.

“Kyrie eleison,” the congregants intone, while at the altar, a retired cop-turned-Orthodox priest performs rituals as old as Christianity. When he steps down to face the crowd, he delivers a sermon like a country preacher, sweat beading on his forehead.

“Some of us here are former Methodists,” says the Rev. James Hamrick, wearing white vestments over a black cassock, addressing two-dozen worshippers scattered sparsely through the pews. “Some of us were former Lutherans. Some of us were former Episcopals. Evangelicals. Non-denominational Christians. Pentecostals. But the one single factor that is common to all of our journeys — no, not where we come from — is that fact that we pursued the truth of God’s self-revelation.”

Saint John the Baptist Orthodox Church is a tiny congregation in a rural corner of Frederick County. Its members number about 50, most of whom left mainline Protestant congregations for what they believe is the closest they can come to the original Christian church.

Traditionally, Orthodox churches in this country filled with immigrants maintaining their religion in their adopted country. But over the past 26 years, the Orthodox Church has swelled with dissatisfied Protestants and Catholics.

Gilbert Kelbaugh, of Frederick, said he found in Orthodoxy the formality he remembered in the Episcopal church of his childhood.

“When I got back from Vietnam, there was not much I recognized,” said Kelbaugh, who said he had given up church for years.

The Orthodox Church remains small in this country. Just 1.5 million Americans are members, about as many as are Muslim. Its ranks are growing, though. Since 2000, the church has seen a 17 percent growth in the number of congregations, according to church statistics. That growth has been driven largely by converts.

In a 2011 survey, fewer than half the Orthodox parishes in the country said they had a strong ethnic heritage. Converts make up more than a quarter of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, the largest Orthodox Church in the country, and a majority of the second-largest Orthodox Church, according to a 2008 study. Smaller churches, like the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese, with which St. John the Baptist is affiliated, rely on coverts for most of their members and are growing quickly, from 65 parishes in the mid-’60s to more than 250 today.

“People call it the best-kept secret in America,” Hamrick said, “but we’re trying to not keep it a secret anymore.”

The movement got under way in 1987 when more than 200 former Evangelical Protestants joined the Orthodox Church in a mass conversion, led largely by Peter Gillquist, a disenchanted Protestant evangelist-turned-Orthodox priest.

“In an era of increasing radical change, deformation, loss of tradition, tacked-on tradition, I think people are looking for stability, continuity and fidelity,” said the Rev. Alexander Webster, archpriest at St. Herman of Alaska Orthodox Church in Stafford, Va., and the author of several books on Orthodoxy.

Converts sometimes find themselves at odds with ethnic Orthodox practitioners. Many newcomers come from evangelical or conservative Episcopal backgrounds. But a Pew Forum on Religious Life and Society found most Orthodox practitioners support abortion rights and acceptance of homosexuality.

Many also find a sense of ritual and tradition they were longing for.

“There’s not a lot of hand clapping going on in Orthodox circles,” said Webster, a former Catholic. “We’re very solemn. But that’s part of the mysterium tremendum — the awesome history of worship.”

Father Hamrick was the son of a Methodist minister in a family that traced its Methodist heritage back to the 1700s. Hamrick followed in his footsteps, working as both a preacher and a University of Maryland campus cop.

After six years as a Methodist minister, he joined the Charismatic Episcopal Church in search of a more liturgical church and started a congregation in a 130-year-old Methodist chapel set in a cemetery near his hometown of Thurmont. When internal division split the Charismatic Episcopals, Hamrick was drawn to Orthodoxy. Nearly all the congregation agreed to come along, he said, and the church came under the wing of the Antiochians.

Hamrick hung up his collar and brought in a visiting priest until he was ordained into Orthodoxy in 2009.

“There is a blessing that comes in having been accepted into a church that has existed for 2,000 years,” he said.

The ancient rites can be daunting to newcomers. Hamrick’s wife, Pamela, makes a point of helping them through the chants and rituals.

“It’s kind of complicated,” she said.

The faith comes with challenges for many newcomers, especially Protestants who chafe at veneration of the Virgin Mary, prayers to saints and the use of relics. A golden box on the altar of the Lewistown church is said to hold a portion of St. John the Baptist’s finger bone.

“I rebelled against it at first,” said Rick Andersen, who with his wife Kathy drives one and a half hours from New Bloomfield, Pa., for services. Andersen said his faith has ranged from Catholic to Jehovah’s Witness, but he likes the traditions of Orthodoxy.

“This is where we belong,” he said.

26 июля 2013 г.

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ted perantinides 1 августа 2014, 23:00
to george rutkay:all vestments,vessels,icons,etc,etc...are for the magisty of GOD and JESUS.DO YOU HAVE A PROBLEM WITH THIS?i strongly suggest that this beats bands ,strobe lights,speaking in tongues,etc.im hoping that you are making a broad statement and not admonishing ORTHODOXY
Lewis Luckenbach III 8 августа 2013, 08:00
Most Orthodox that I know are sold pro-lifers and do not support abortion rights. I am on the parish council of my local Orthodox Church. St Joesph Orthodox Church in Houston, TX. Lewis Luckenbach III
Vladimir Howry 4 августа 2013, 10:00
To George: The Lord also attended worship in the Jewish Temple, and did not scorn the rites held there, only the hypocrisy and hardness of heart of those presiding. When Christians first sought a fitting way to worship our One God in Trinity, they looked to their Jewish past, to that pattern of worship laid out by God through the Prophets and Patriarchs of Old Israel. What Christ taught was important for the world; the majesty of His worship helps teach this. Through the icons, hymns, incense and vestments we call to mind the heavenly worship carried on by the angels and saints,so beautifully described by Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and John. Peace and love be to you, and God's grace be poured abundantly upon you!
Luke Landtroop 4 августа 2013, 06:00
The reference to the Pew Survey follows the statement that Orthodox converts, who are usually former evangelicals or at least conservative Protestants, often find themselves at odd with ethnic or 'born' Orthodox believers. The implications seems to be that it is the ethnic believers who favor liberal positions, not converts, as a couple of previous comments seem to suggest.
George Rutkay30 июля 2013, 20:00
I don't know....it looks nice. But I reflect on what we know of the life of Jesus and the things he spoke of. All of these chattel, rituals, robes, etc....don't reflect anything that apparently Jesus did. Wasn't Jesus supposed to be a humble carpenter? He wore no fancy robes? Nothing golden did he possess? Didn't he commonly mingle with regular people? If I compare any of the modern churches and their activities to what we know of Jesus, it seems that all of them are guilty of embellishing, guilty of adding things which Jesus never did or wore, or possessed. So if they are guilty of this, what else are they guilty of changing? Fidelity to the way of walking with Jesus' path seems to be questionable with so many churches who seem to have a habit of hoarding gold and dressing up in wealth. Well, anyway. Be at peace, be well. Stand for what is good and right, eschew what is wrong and evil.
Fr. James Rosselli27 июля 2013, 04:00
I find the Pew Forum survey helpful, if convicting. We clergy obviously need to do a better job of spiritually forming our congregations. Attracting people to Orthodoxy is all well and good, but it's meaningless if they continue in the belief that sodomy and the murder of infants are acceptable in the eyes of God. it's even worse if they continue in some zany idea that it is somehow "okay" to cling to secular notions in the area of morality, or to ignore the Orthodox mindset in favor of the mad vanities of the decadent society that surrounds us. Fr. James Rosselli ROCOR (Western Rite)
Dana Botkin26 июля 2013, 22:00
"most Orthodox practitioners support abortion rights and acceptance of homosexuality." This is a clear indication that secularism and situation ethics has invaded the thinking and attitudes of many of the Protestant churches in America. When will they ever learn? If America would only take the same approach as Russia and the Russian Orthodox Church is taking!
Храм Новомученников Церкви Русской. Внести лепту